Language development in school-aged children

Language development in school-aged children

So they say you shouldn’t compare children – they’re all individuals. And there is of course some truth in that, I know that.

However, as a mum to three young children (age three, five and seven), I’m also aware of what nonsense it is to tell me not to compare. Comparing is what reassures me that my children are doing okay, whether they are walking, talking, playing and doing all the other things that children of their age are expected to be doing.

And so, I admit that I mentally compare their performance with the performances of their siblings and playmates. And professionally, as a speech and language therapist, I compare the performances of the children I assess against developmental norms, and draw conclusions about whether or not they are exhibiting signs of communication delay or difficulty.

In most cases, I am assessing a child because someone, be it a parent, family member, teacher or medical professional, has mentally compared the child against their peer group and decided that there may be a cause for concern.

Language development in the school age years

Often, however, parents stop comparing language skills once their child is talking in sentences. The problem with this is that language development is so much more than learning to talk. While the most obvious red flags for language delay can be spotted in the first five years of life, language development continues throughout the school years.

Language skills growth

By first class, your child might have a vocabulary of between 8,000 and 14,000 words, but by secondary school it’s about 80,000 words.

At five years old, if you ask direct questions, your junior infant might be able to clarify something they’ve said that you’ve found a little confusing. By nine years old they will be much better at recognising by themselves when they’ve been misunderstood. They’ll be more likely to clarify their meaning by rephrasing or adding words to their explanations without you having to ask them.

Between six and 12 years old, children become much more effective communicators. Language becomes more sophisticated, sentence structures become longer and more complex, and topics are chosen more tactfully.

In adolescence, understanding and use of popular sayings and sarcasm develops. They learn how to draw inferences and interpret the non-literal meanings of things people say. They become better at expressing opinions and their powers of persuasion improve.

So, sometimes it is only during the school-age years that higher level language difficulties begin to emerge. The impact of language impairment Specific language impairment (SLI), sometimes referred to as a ‘hidden disability’, often goes unnoticed or is misdiagnosed.

The impact of language impairment

Specific language impairment (SLI), sometimes referred to as a ‘hidden disability’, often goes unnoticed or is misdiagnosed.

As a speech and language therapist, I work with many children whose language difficulties have not been identified until they are well into their school years.

By this time they have begun to impact negatively on the child’s behaviour, academic progress and educational attainments, social interactions and friendships, self-organisation and overall self-image and feelings of self-worth.

Language development in school-aged children

Types of language difficulties

A child with language difficulties may exhibit difficulties in some or all of these areas.

Receptive language:

Understanding the meaning of words and sentences. Does your child seem to have more than the average number of ‘fights’ with their siblings or peers? Or tend to make remarks that are unrelated to the subject in hand? Or ‘disobey’ you a lot? These can all be signs of receptive language difficulties – maybe your child just doesn’t understand the rules of the game or hasn’t fully understood what you’ve asked them to do

Many children become adept at masking receptive language difficulties. They rely heavily on your accompanying gestures, such as pointing e.g. “It’s bucketing down,” as you point out at the rain. Or they copy what everyone else is doing. If your child is always the last to do something, it might be that they’re just waiting to see what others are doing before following suit.

Expressive language

The ability to use words and sentences. While some signs of expressive language delay are obvious, such as grammatical difficulties (e.g. ‘sitted’ for ‘sat’), plenty of children are able to hold a conversation, ask and answer simple questions and form grammatically correct sentences – yet still have an underlying expressive language difficulty.

In such cases, the child’s vocabulary might remain relatively limited (e.g. things are always ‘big’, never ‘huge, enormous, gigantic or colossal’).

They may tend to lose their train of thought when telling you something, or struggle to create a logical sequence to their stories. If asked to explain, for example, the steps involved in making a cup of tea or a sandwich, the child might be at a loss, even though they can carry out the action without problem.

Their sentences, whilst grammatically correct, typically fail to expand and become more complex as they get older (e.g. “The lady was holding her baby. She was holding three bags too. She dropped her keys. She wasn’t able to pick them up” rather than, “The lady who was holding her baby and three bags struggled to pick up her keys when she dropped them because her hands were full”).

Auditory processing

Remembering and processing information heard, and formulating an appropriate response.

Diagnosed in conjunction with an audiologist, because of the relationship with listening, auditory processing disorder (APD) is a complex disorder that shares characteristics with many other disorders and is most often misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD).

Children with APD will often move rapidly from one activity to another without completing anything, may look in the wrong direction to locate a sound, require repeated requests to do as they are told and find it more difficult to follow instructions or understand speech in noisy environments.

How to help improve concentration levels in children

Organisational skills

Whilst not always associated with language difficulty, poor organisational skills can be a sign of a hidden language disorder.

We all talk to ourselves – “What day is it? I mustn’t forget Chloe’s swimming gear, and Ben needs to bring €2 for the school play. I should have time to pick up the dry-cleaning at lunchtime before the school pick-up,” and so on. But imagine trying to do this if you have language difficulties.

If your child has difficulty with concepts of time (e.g. before/after, first/ next/last, tomorrow, next week), space (behind, beside, top/ bottom, near), then sequencing a set of events in a logical order – organising, categorising, prioritising and summarising information, then they’ll struggle to organise themselves.

Sometimes, it’s only at the time of transition to the less ‘scaffolded’ secondary school that these difficulties reveal themselves fully.

When the child is suddenly expected to follow timetables, navigate from one class to another, to keep track of homework due in on different days for different teachers, to have the right books with them for the right class etc. then the child who has successfully masked language difficulties throughout their primary school years can start experiencing unexpected but significant problems in secondary school.

Often put down to the child ‘taking time to settle’ into secondary school, such problems may in fact be a sign of a hidden language difficulty.

What do I do if I suspect that my child has delayed language development?

If you suspect that your child may be showing signs of language difficulty, the first step is to contact a speech and language therapist for advice. It may turn out to be nothing clinical but often it is and, for children who are struggling, intervention can make a tough time a whole lot easier. And as parents, isn’t that what all of us want for our kids?

More like this:

Speech development in younger children
How to encourage your child’s speech development
Autism – know the signs


Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….


Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.